By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Standing on the edge of Alcatraz Island, it's easy to understand the pressures that drove inmate Joe Bauer to run for the prison fence, in broad daylight and directly under the watchful eye of a nearby tower guard. It wasn't a suicide attempt, although everyone knew he'd be shot dead within moments of touching the fence's cold metal links, nor was it complete madness, although, according to then-prisoner Jim Quillen, Bauer clearly wasn't all there. What drove Bauer to his fatal sprint in 1936 was the close proximity of the city -- the lights, the music, the smells, the maddening sound of women laughing.
"Will you just look at that view?" sighs a smartly dressed woman who is clearly enjoying today's $150 Alcatraz tour package, which benefits the Marin-based charity Bread & Roses. (The organization sponsors 400 concerts a year in prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions; today, several hundred people are on the island enjoying a concert, a meal, a panel discussion, and the obligatory tour.) As the woman stands on a refurbished Arizona red stone walkway surrounded by well-tended agave cactuses and blue skies, she ruminates on the real estate possibilities. "It's a bit windy, but I'd suffer it to wake up to that view," she says.
Alcatraz Prison was built in 1909 to hold wayward military personnel. Because the military had every intention of rehabilitating its men, the penitentiary was constructed with an unusual amount of windows, which remained when the federal government took over in 1933.
"To understand Alcatraz, you have to realize one thing," says Quillen, a guest on our tour. He spent 10 years and a day on the Rock for kidnapping and assault. "Alcatraz was not intended to rehabilitate. It was intended to punish. San Francisco is less than a mile and a half away. The view became a sort of torture." Quillen is 78 now, tan and white-haired, with God, a good woman, and a 31-year-old daughter. He wears a leather jacket, bluejeans, and gold-rimmed glasses that say, "Forget about it."
"Jim has become a very good friend," says National Park Ranger John Cantwell. "Last weekend, he guest-bartended at our ranger party, alongside a man who had once been his guard."
Alcatraz Island is beautiful. In some areas, the water comes right up to the stairs, giving a smallish person the uneasy illusion of floating. When the sun begins to set, the incapacitated structures and deserted buildings, with their rows of dark, gaping windows, leave an indelible impression that is not altogether unpleasant.
Alcatraz has seen remarkable events. In 1969, American Indians took over the then-deserted federal land in what was to become the beginning of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Local folks, like Mary Crowley, who is visiting Alcatraz today for the first time since that summer, sailed supplies, hippies, Hell's Angels, and Jane Fonda out to the island on small privately owned boats.
"Looking at it now," says Crowley, pulling her billowing purple coat around her tight, "I wonder how I ever had the nerve to sail out here in the dark." (The spirit of the AIM is kept alive and well on the island with two overnight events held each year -- the un-Thanksgiving and the un-Columbus Day celebrations.)
Despite Ranger Cantwell's rich history lesson, full of details about several eras of Alcatraz history, Quillen personifies what the island means to most people. The folks on the tour have questions for him, but they're mostly about the movies.
"Murder in the First stunk," Quillen says of the Kevin Bacon vehicle about an inmate driven to murder by vicious treatment. "I knew Henry Young very well. He wasn't in here for stealing five bucks from a grocery store. He was a dangerous man, convicted of bank robbery and murder." Of course, this being a benefit for Bread & Roses there are a few X-Files-watching liberals in the paying crowd who believe that government injustice will always exceed personal offense.
"Well, you work for the government now, don't you," shouts a woman on the tour. "How do we know that you are telling us the truth?"
Not to be flustered, Quillen looks the lady square in the eye and says loudly, "I'm retired. I wrote a book and, one day a week, I work in the bookstore. I'm just telling you the facts. If you don't want to hear it, you can walk away."
During his incarceration, Quillen knew the Birdman of Alcatraz, who, he assures us, never owned a bird. At one point Quillen and several other inmates in D Block lost accrued good-time (reduced sentences for good behavior) for starting a small riot when the warden wouldn't supply a doctor for the infamous prisoner. The Birdman was faking, of course, but the cons in D Block had no idea.
"He just leaned back and smiled when he found out that I had lost my good-time," says Quillen. "He was a genius, but a kook."
In the cellblock, which Cantwell calls Broadway, the rows of tiny cells are immaculately kept by the National Park Service. A small, sagging cot and a shelf leave barely enough room to piss standing up. Cantwell closes the bars with a deafening, absolute crash. Standing above us, on the second level, Quillen is clearly moved with emotion.